How to Write a Policy White Paper

By Enoka Bainomugisha @kingbaino


Action research involves solving a particular problem and to producing guidelines for best practice. When there are decision makers which need to be informed or swayed to solve a particular problem, White Papers are a good route research tool to use. White Papers are specific type of research papers aimed at influencing decisions. The purpose of a White Paper is to advocate that a certain position is the best way to go or that a certain solution is best for a particular problem (Sakamuro et al 2010). How you present the knowledge and research is just as important as how knowledgeable you are on the topic and what your research entails. A White Paper should be well researched and technically documented, demonstrating your understanding of the issue at hand (Knowledge Storm 2005).

While business White Papers seek to show the benefits of a product to consumers for sales purposes, non-business white papers often seek to influence policy. Policy is a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve outcomes. Policy is also a statement of intent, and is implemented as a procedure or protocol. Whether in health, law, politics, trade or any other field, research can influence policy. Individuals and organizations can increase their chances of impacting policy through well-written White Papers.



The main characteristic of a White Paper is its format. The White Paper should be presented in the following order:

  1. Executive Summary

A brief summary on what the White Paper entails and is used to help the reader to quickly understand the paper’s purpose. The executive summary should be in the same order as the main report, include material present in the main report and be concise.

  1. Background / Problem(s)

Provide readers with the general background information on the issue at hand. Help the reader make their decision based on the understanding of the research. It is important to show the reader you are an expert on the subject, while not digressing from the main issues at hand. The problem or issue at hand should be stated clearly for the reader to see.

  1. Solution / Reccomendations

After explaining the background and problems, propose your solution or recommendations. The quality and utility of your solution or recommendation should be assessed using Double-S.M.A.R.T criteria: Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Results-Oriented; and Time-Bound. Solution-suggestive; Mindful of prioritization, sequencing & risks; Argued; Root-cause responsive; and Targeted. See Association for the Prevention of Torture article for detailed explanations.

  1. Conclusion

Your conclusion should appear as a result of the logical argument and information you have presented. Effective White Paper conclusions should propel readers to action that furthers your goals or solutions. The conclusion should briefly restate the main findings, and show readers why the goals and/or solutions presented in the previous section are in their interests. What makes white paper conclusions different than other conclusion is the emphasis on what the reader can do as a next step.

  1. Appendix

Place any appendices necessary.

  1. Works Cited

Place works cited at the end of your white paper.


General Rules

Length and content of the White Paper

The length of white papers is audience dependent. Generally, white papers to businesses, NGOs, or foundations should be kept to 12 pages or less. Longer topics should be split into multiple papers. White papers to governments tend to be longer (20 to 40 pages).

Graphics are important to white papers because of their ability to display information in an easier and more visibly appealing fashion. Do not use clip art or photos as they will make your white paper look like a brochure. If possible, include informative illustrations that walk the reader through a relevant process. Research shows that “pictograms,” the combination of words and pictures in a chart or diagram, communicate much more effectively than either words or images by themselves (Knowledge Storm 2005).



Use accessible language and avoid dense language or overuse of industry or technical jargon. Technical or industry jargon can be used when you are positive your audience is intimately familiar.

Different types of readers look for different perspectives. A lawyer might be concerned with the legal aspect of your solutions while a government official might be concerned with the feasibility of your solution.


Ethical Considerations  

The same ethical principles which govern your research should govern your White Paper. If your white paper references research you conducted, your appendix should include your ethics approval


Further Reading (Examples of White Papers) 

Association for the Prevention of Torture. 2008. Making Effective Recommendation.

Physitians Foundation. 2015. “Medicare Watch List Report”.

Ponemon Institute LLC. 2014. “Global Insights on Document Security”.

Toews, Vic, and Christian Paradis. 2010. “Canada’s Cyber Security Strategy.” October 3.


Further Reading (How to Write White Papers)

Dukeshire, Steven, and Jennifer Thurlow. “Understanding the Link Between Research and Policy.” Rural Communities Imp acting Policy (RCIP), 2002.

Knowledge Storm, and Content Factor. “Eight Rules for Creating Great White Papers,” 2005.

Sakamuro, Sachiko, Karl Stolley, and Charlotte Hyde. “White Paper: Purpose and Audience.” Accessed January 18, 2016.



Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research

Tuck, E. and K.W. Yang. (2014a). Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry 20 (6): 811-818.

This paper examines ‘refusal’ as an anti-colonial method for analyzing and communicating research data. The researchers draw on the work of Indigenous scholars, to argue that so-called ‘objective’ methods of ethnographic data analysis are colonial in that they reduce individuals and experiences to ‘objects’ that are extracted and claimed by the academy. Specifically, the authors assume that: 1) Studies focusing on the pain of marginalized groups are exploitative and unhelpful; 2) That there are some forms of knowledge that should be kept out of the academy; and 3) Research might not be the most appropriate intervention to a given situation. Using these points as a guide, the article provides concrete examples of how refusal can be incorporated into research design (to focus on institutions and power, rather than the ‘social problems’ of marginalized groups), data collection (being attentive to the refusals made by study participants) and analysis (to refuse to report these refusals within the academy).

‘Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from ‘studying up’

Nader, L. (1969) ‘Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from ‘studying up’’pp. 284–311 inD. Hyms (ed) Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Random House

‘Studying up’ is an approach that includes the perspectives of those at the middle and the upper ends of a stratified society as well as (or rather than) those in the lower end in trying to understand the working of a particular society. To understand how power is exercised, the author recommends that anthropologists study all levels of society including those previously not studied. The main argument is that it is important for the people to understand who shapes attitudes and who controls institutional structures and this can be done through the ‘studying up’ approach. The essay also includes reasons why this approach should be adopted by anthropologists. The author points out what might happen if anthropologists were to study the colonizers rather than the colonized, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless and the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty. By investigating how the powerful urban society works it is possible to understand how this might have a corresponding effect on the other groups of people at the society. The consequences of not studying up as well as down are also discussed.

Ethical problems that arise while applying the ‘studying up’ approach are mentioned. There often arises confusion when studying one’s own society; the author here asks whether there is one different ethic for studying up and another one for studying down. The ethics that should be applied while studying the public, the private and foreign cultures are discussed in detail.

Beyond activism/academia: militant research and the radical climate and climate justice movement(s)

Russell, B. (2015), Beyond activism/academia: militant research and the radical climate and climate justice movement(s). Area, 47: 222–229

This paper looks at the problems that arise between activism and the academia and how researchers can move beyond these problems in terms of knowledge production and operations. The author introduces the article by looking at how to define knowledge production that is based on struggle. A researcher engaging in militant research must find a way to link their intellectual and their political concerns. The author argues that militant research as an approach rejects the whole problem of the academic/activist and holds the academic component as irrelevant because militant research does not take the university as referent. The author thus makes a distinction of militant research as an orientation and as a process. The approach refutes the perspective that activism and research are opposed and stresses that the most important principle for academics committed to social change is to make strategic interventions collectively with the social movements they belong to.

Abstract: The problematic of the activist/academic relationship has been a source of sustained concern for radical Geographers over the past 15 years. Drawing on my personal experience within the radical climate movement(s), this paper looks to develop on the commitments of militant research, contribute to the development of militant ethnography as a research approach and consider the subsequent implications for thinking through the activist/academic problematic. Elaborating on the epistemological distinction between ‘truth relaying’ and ‘knowledge production’, it is contended that militant research is an orientation and process synonymous with the disavowal of positivist knowledge and the construction of situated partisan knowledge(s). Rather than the (social) science of transmitting truth, research thus becomes the art of producing tools you can fight with. From this perspective, the activist/academic problematic is not a ‘neutral’ problem but a product of a certain way of knowing associated with the academy. The paper concludes that our concern should not be to navigate between (and thus reiterate) the fields of ‘activism’ and ‘academy’, but to surpass the problematic altogether. We are tasked not with reproducing the university in its current form, but reimagining it as a machine for the production of other worlds.

Youth activism and community change: New democratic possibilities for practice and policy for America’s youth

Ginwright, S. A., Noguera, P., & Cammarota, J. (Eds.). (2006). Beyond resistance!: Youth activism and community change: New democratic possibilities for practice and policy for America’s youth. Routledge.

This book is a collection of work by different researchers that was inspired by a question on how educational researchers can make actual contribution to policy on the subjects that they work on. It focuses on youth activism as a means of social change. The book’s main argument is that youth activism plays a central role in shaping democratic processes that lead to social change such as the fight to end apartheid in South Africa. The work by the authors here is based on what happens when the youth are not given a chance to take part in social movements. Under restriction and prohibition, how do young people try to push and agitate for social change, what alternative means do they use? This book is also concerned with the mechanisms that restrict active participation of the youth in social movements especially youth of colour. It offers a comprehensive discussion of how young people respond to major patterns of institutional failure in their schools and communities.

Courts as Forums for Protest

Jules Lobel, Courts as Forums for Protest, 52 UCLA L. REV. 477 (2004)

This article focuses on courts as forums for protest. It argues that courts should not restrict debate on social issues that is sparked by lawsuits. It also suggests that judges should make rulings keeping in mind existing injustices in the society and rule in such a way that will encourage the government to address such injustices which might not be addressed otherwise. It puts forward the belief that winning or losing a case is not as important as influencing public debate on the issue in question. Various concepts are discussed in the book such as the model of the court as a forum for protest, the legitimacy of courts as forums for protests, articulation of norms and their enforcement and the role of lawyers in the courts as forums for protest.

The Ethical Dilemmas of International Human Rights and Humanitarian NGOs

Daniel A. Bell & Joseph H. Carens, “The Ethical Dilemmas of International Human Rights and Humanitarian NGOs: Reflections on A Dialogue Between Practitioners and Theorists,” 26 HUM. RTS. Q. 300 (2004)

The paper focuses on the different ethical problems that humanitarian organizations face such as conflicts between human rights principles and local cultural norms and how these problems limit their work. Its main aim is analyzing the approaches that different humanitarian organizations use to deal with ethical issues and the advantages and disadvantages of each of these approaches. This, it suggests, is beneficial for practitioners working in this kind of organizations. It also argues that since the goal of political theory is to guide action then it must understand the choices that those involved in human rights work confront daily in their work. By looking at the four ethical dilemmas in depth the paper ends by saying that most responses to ethical dilemmas will depend on the context at hand.